Refugees are people who must leave their home area for their own safety or survival. A refugee’s home area could be a country, state, or region. People become refugees for many reasons, including war, oppression, natural disasters, and climate change.


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Refugees are people who must leave their home for their own safety or survival. A refugee's home area could be a countrystate, or region. People become refugees for many reasons, including warnatural disasters and climate change. People may also become refugees if they are persecuted or oppressed due to their race, religion, nationality, social activities, political views, or membership in a certain group.

Most refugee laws are based on a 1951 United Nations (UN) document, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Convention was created to deal with the large number of people who became refugees because of World War II. The UN originally limited its definition of refugees to include only those from war-torn Europe. In 1967, it expanded the definition to include refugees from any conflict or disaster.

Today, refugees can seek asylum in any of the 147 countries that have signed the Convention. Asylum is the protection from oppression or hardship offered by another country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is an international resource for refugees and countries offering asylum.

Refugee status is an official decision made by the country providing asylum or an international agency. A person who is seeking asylum but has not yet received refugee status is called an asylum-seeker. Countries that have signed the Convention have agreed not to deport asylum-seekers to places where they may be in danger. Once an asylum-seeker is approved for refugee status, they are welcomed into their host country. It is expected to provide them with civil rights, the right to work and access to social services.

Refugees in History

History is filled with stories of people forced to leave their homes. For example, in 1685, France, which was mostly Catholic, outlawed the Protestant religion. This forced hundreds of thousands of Huguenots, a French Protestant group, to flee the country. Most of these refugees moved to other European countries. Some traveled as far as South Africa and North America. Intolerance of this kind is repeated throughout history, forcing many from their homes due to their religious views.

Refugees posed a global crisis after World War II. The end of the war didn't end the suffering of millions of people whose homes were destroyed, who were released from prison camps or who had been expelled from their home countries. For example, Jews who had survived Nazi concentration camps throughout Europe often returned home to find that their property and businesses had been taken over by other people. Most of these Jews could no longer survive in their hometowns. They had no home, few possessions, and little hope of finding work. Even though the war was over, anti-Semitism was still a strong force in Europe. Many communities and groups worked to drive Jews from their homes and places of business.

After World War II, the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a conflict called the Cold War. The Cold War was a conflict between the communist political system of the Soviet Union and the democratic political system of the U.S. It involved dozens of countries in the sphere of influence of each of the world's two "superpowers." The conflict ended in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, thousands of refugees fled Soviet territory to seek asylum elsewhere, primarily in Western Europe and the U.S.

The Cold War involved so-called "proxy wars." Proxy wars are conflicts where countries oppose each other by supporting different sides in another conflictProxy wars in Southeast Asia during the 1970s led to large numbers of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. More than two million Southeast Asians fled their homes during this time. Many of them were forced to leave on boats, which earned them the nickname "boat people." The journey was brutal and often deadly.

Refugees Today

In 2017, the number of refugees rose to 19.9 million and 3.1 million asylum-seekers around the world, according to the UNHCR.

Refugees from Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Syria account for the most refugees worldwide. Wars and oppression in each of these regions force refugees to flee their homes.

About 85 percent of the world's refugees are from developing countries. Most refugees from developing countries seek asylum in other developing countries. Refugees from the conflict in Afghanistan, for instance, often immigrate to Pakistan, Iran, or even Europe. Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide—about 3.5 million.

Over half of all refugees live in cities, and they tend to settle here for a number of reasons. For one, the legal facilities available to asylum-seekers—including lawyers and diplomats—are often clustered in cities. Most importantly, however, is the community of other immigrants in cities.

Internally Displaced Persons

Not everyone who has to leave home ends up leaving their country. Refugees who move within their national borders are called "internally displaced persons," or IDPs. Today, about 40 million people around the world are internally displaced by conflict or violence. That is the highest number recorded since 1994. International refugee laws do not provide protection and support for IDPs, which means that IDPs have to rely on their own government for protection.

Sudan, in eastern Africa, has one of the largest IDP populations in the world. From 1983 to 2005, war between north and south Sudan forced millions of people from their homes. By the end of 2017, around 4.4 million people were displaced throughout the country, particularly in the region of Darfur.

Other countries with large numbers of IDPs are Colombia, Iraq, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Pakistan.

Environmental Refugees

Environmental refugees are people who must leave their homes because of environmental disruption. Natural disasters like earthquakeshurricanes, and floods often force people to flee. In January 2010, a giant earthquake devastated the city of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. Many of the city's residents became IDPs and fled to other parts of the country, and still more sought asylum as refugees in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Environmental disruption can also be man-made, such as a nuclear accident or pollution. The World Bank estimates that 100 million people were displaced by dam-building projects in the 1990s. This generally happens when the water held behind the dam floods towns and villages. Construction of the massive Three Gorges Dam in China, for example, flooded dozens of towns and displaced 1.3 million people.

Today, human activity contributes to climate change. Activities such as burning fossil fuels (like coal and oil) and cutting down forests add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, trapping the sun's heat. The rising temperature causes glaciers and ice caps to melt, making sea levels rise. It also leads to droughts and floodsEnvironmental refugees affected by climate change are often called climate refugees.

Even though environmental refugees are not protected by international law, they often receive a great deal of help. Sudden, major disasters are reported in newspapers and on TV around the world. In 2011, for instance, a devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami occurred in northeastern Japan. Countries from around the world offered aid to assist in the relief efforts.

The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees today than refugees from wars. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated that 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009, and about 20 million of those were forced to move for climate change-related issues. Between 15 million and 42 million people have been displaced by natural disasters each year since 2008.

Like IDPs, environmental refugees are not protected under international refugee laws. In fact, most of them are IDPs as well. They are not guaranteed the same protection and assistance as other refugees.

Many international organizations recognize that environmental disruption is a growing problem, one that needs to be addressed. The problem may also increase the number of traditional refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has noted, "Climate change can enhance the competition for resources—water, food, grazing lands—and that competition can trigger conflict."

Fast Fact

Countries of origin of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees:
Colombia: 3,758,127
Iraq: 3,565,375
Afghanistan: 3,279,471
Pakistan: 3,040,845
Democratic Republic of Congo: 2,662,821

Fast Fact

Places of Refuge
Nations with the most refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced persons in their borders, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees:
Pakistan: 4,744,098
Thailand: 3,615,552
Colombia: 3,304,362
Democratic Republic of the Congo: 2,362,295
Iraq: 2,026,798

Fast Fact

City of Refuge
Puuhonua o Hnaunau, a national park on the Big Island of Hawaii, marks an ancient City of Refuge. The site, on the islands western coast, was a place where people who fled the law could seek asylum and refuge. Asylum-seekers could be absolved by a priest and freed to leave.

Puuhonua o Hnaunau accepted refugees from the 15th through the 19th centuries.

Fast Fact

Peace Out
Many U.S. citizens who opposed the Vietnam War and wished to avoid being drafted into fighting sought political asylum in Canada. After the war, President Jimmy Carter issued a pardon to these conscientious objectors, allowing them to return to the U.S. without punishment.

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Diane Boudreau
Melissa McDaniel
Erin Sprout
Andrew Turgeon
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther, Illustrator
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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